Crusaders 4 Lisburn Distillery 1
Stephen Baxter has challenged his Crusaders players to sign off the season in style by maintaining their stunning form until the last boot of the ball in the Irish Cup decider.
Linfield may have one hand on the Gibson Cup after a thrilling comeback victory at Glentoran, but the Crues are still galloping towards the finishing line.
It’s fitting that the Irish Cup final will see the two best sides slug it out at Windsor Park and the top two demonstrated at the weekend why they are the most ruthless outfits in the Carling Premiership.
Crusaders produced another immense performance to crush Lisburn Distillery at Seaview but there was a sting in the tail to come from across the city where Linfield fought back to tighten their grip on the glittering prize.
The Irish Cup is now likely to be the Crues’ last shot at silverware this season and there is no doubt that their champagne football has left fans thirsty for more thrills and spills.
Four superb goals from Gareth McKeown, Michael Halliday, Stuart Dallas and Jordan Owens underlined the Hatchetmen’s hunger to keep entertaining to the end.
“I said to the players they have four games and a cup final to go and they should sign off in some style and play their football and get about their business,” said Baxter.
“They were magnificent, their passing was superb and you would pay in to watch that it was so good.
“That’s all we can do, we don’t worry about what happens elsewhere.
“We will keep playing our football and look forward to a big day out in the Cup Final.
“I heard at half-time Glentoran were winning 1-0 but I wasn’t really paying any attention to that.
“I’m more focused on keeping my boys fit for the games ahead as Gareth (McKeown) picked up a groin injury and, with Chris (Morrow) suffering with his back complaint, you just hope you don’t pick up more injuries because we don’t have a big squad.
“I have to be wise and look at everything on its merits.
“Our two full-backs attacked all day long and we had to play Stuarty (Dallas) in a central midfield position. And Michael Halliday, my word what a game and his link-up play was fabulous.”
Winger Martin Donnelly was handed a rare league start and, despite reports linking the Northern Ireland international with a summer switch to Glentoran, Baxter says he’s in the dark regarding the player’s future.
“I have honestly no idea,” said Baxter. “The situation has not changed since January and the transfer window is shut.
“All contracts were discussed and everyone agreed to sign except Martin and that’s life.
“It was the right time to play him. We had one or two positional problems, losing two central midfielders so we had to make adjustments. Martin is available to play and he played well.”
McKeown got the ball rolling in the third minute with a sublime strike and Halliday added number two on seven minutes with a clinical finish.
A screamer from Dallas on 56 minutes killed the contest and Owens was also on target from long range five minutes later.
A late consolation strike from substitute Jordan Forsythe failed to wipe the smiles off Crues faces but it now appears certain the Hatchetmen will claim the runner-up spot in the league.
For Whites boss Tommy Wright it was a painful return to earth after the glory of their Co-operative Insurance Cup success.
“We knew they would come at us but we didn’t start the game well,” said Wright.
“Crusaders could have scored six in the first half but Gary Liggett also could have had a hat-trick.
“He was clean through twice and has a shot on the turn which he doesn’t get a good connection.
“Their two second half goals should have been prevented but we allowed them too many chances to score. We stood off them and they are a good side.”